Fort Worth Stockyards; A Taste Of The Old West

"Sheriff" Chris Whatley and his comedy act, The Gunfighters, frequently puts on shows in the Stockyards. Like many of the cowboys, he promotes gun safety to children of all ages--a commendable endeavor.
Photos © 2001, Rick Sammon, All Rights Reserved

When I was a kid, my favorite television shows were Westerns: The Lone Ranger, Maverick, and Bonanza. Why did I like those programs? Because, like most boys back then, I dreamed of being a cowboy. After all, what could be more fun than riding a horse at full speed chasing bad guys?

Today, perhaps more so with last year's tragedy in New York City, I still fantasize about being a part of the Old West--cowboy boots, horse, and all. In fact, right now, going back in time to the 1800s sounds like a good idea.

Well, I'll probably never be a cowboy; the closest I'll ever get is photographing them. And one of the best places I know to do that is at the Stockyards National Historic District of Fort Worth, Texas. Hang around the main drag, Exchange Avenue on Saturdays and Sundays, and you'll encounter cowboys (and cowgirls) doing their thing: actually herding cattle down the street (at 11:30am and 4pm) and riding their horses in the area and around the stables throughout the day.

Even when you are shooting on a crowded street and surrounded by people, you can get a nice cowboy portrait by using a long lens set to a wide aperture. Here I positioned my subject, Chester Stidham, so that the saddle of his horse was in the background and slightly out of focus--a composition technique that added a Western feel to the photograph.

You'll also find cowpokes and their lady friends dressed in traditional Western attire hanging around the local pubs, like the world-famous White Elephant Saloon. You can find more indoor photo opportunities in the Cowtown Coliseum, where action-packed rodeos are held, and in other local establishments, such as Miss Molly's, a bed and breakfast that's furnished with Old West antiques--and lighted like a bordello from the 1800s.

While there is lots more to do in the Stockyards--dance the two-step and listen to famous country artists at Billy Bob's Texas, take a train ride on the Tarantula Steam Train, learn about the Old West at the Stockyards Museum, step back in time in the lobby of the Stockyards Hotel, and party on the street to 2am or 3am--I think you'll like photographing the cowboys and their lady friends most of all. And, that's easy to do from a personal standpoint, because these folks enjoyed being photographed--if you approach them in a friendly manner and use the magic word "please."

I photographed "Miss Pepper," whose real name is Judy Carpenter, in Miss Molly's, a popular bed and breakfast in the Stockyards. Be nice to the proprietor, Dawn Street, and you can get photographs like this, too. To lighten the scene, I used a Photoflex Starlite 3200 portable lighting system.

Photo Tips & Techniques

If you go, here are a few tips to help you get some authentic-looking photographs.

Make photographs, don't simply take photographs.
Sure, you can get some nice snapshots of the cowboys on the street. But ask them to pose in shaded alleys, against brick and wooden walls, and your shots will look as though they were taken in the Old West.

Use accessories. Cowboys wear hats with wide brims, which means their faces are in the shade, and at least a stop darker then the surrounding area. To lighten their faces, you can use a light reflector. Daylight fill-in flash is another technique that you can use. And when a subject is not wearing a hat and is standing in direct sunlight, a light diffuser will reduce or eliminate harsh shadows on his or her face.

To avoid the harsh shadows produced by the strong Texas sun on clear days, pose your subject in the shade, where you'll get soft, even lighting. That's what I did to get this portrait of Dawn Street, who, when dressed in one of her 1800s outfits, is known as "Miss Fifi."

Go telephoto. The Stockyards district is a popular tourist destination. If you shoot with a telephoto lens, you'll have a better chance of not getting a tourist in your photograph. Set your lens to a wide aperture, and you can blur the background, which, if sharp, could make your photograph look as though it was taken in, well, a popular tourist destination.

Be prepared. You'll probably want to shoot from dawn to dusk and into the night in the Stockyards. If so, you'll need a variety of films from ISO 100 to 800 to capture all the scenes--indoors and out. Digital photographers can change the ISO settings on their cameras for shooting flexibility. Be natural. You are the photographer, and you can make posing suggestions. But before you shoot, ask your subject if he or she is in a natural pose--doing something that someone from the 1800s would do. Also, your subject does not have to be smiling all the time. After all, some cowboys wore black hats, if you know what I mean.

"Shutterbug's" travel columnist Rick Sammon likes getting "into the act" when he shoots--because it shows his subjects that he is very interested in the situation. For his Fort Worth trip (his third in a year), he donned 1800s style clothes and a hat. His extra effort made him readily accepted by the cowboys in the Stockyards.

Dress for success. Get into the act by picking up some Western clothes at one of the many Western wear shops in the area. Look like a cowboy, and the cowboys will readily accept you. For more information on the Stockyards (and all the other fun stuff there is to do in the Fort Worth area), contact the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau through its web site at You can also call (800) 433-5747.